Western Paranoia (part 2), Tripod of Deceit
Our story thus far: recreating the Paranoia setting of treachery and secret allegiances in a classic Western.
Players were told to be either a Lawman, an Outlaw, or a Cowboy. These are exactly what they sound like: a Lawman enforces the law, an Outlaw is wanted by the law, and a Cowboy neither enforces the law nor is wanted by the law (aka a normal person).
This first choice was their secret “real” identity. Players then had to choose again, this time to decide what they were trying to appear to be. So a character could really be an Outlaw, but try to blend in and behave like a Cowboy, or really be a Cowboy who wanted to look tough by claiming to be a wanted Outlaw. A Lawman could go undercover and call himself an Outlaw, or an Outlaw who gunned down a sheriff could take his badge and pretend to be a Lawman, and so on.
Of course there was also the possibility that a character was exactly what he or she appeared to be: the Cowboy who really is a Cowboy, the Lawman who really is a Lawman, etc.
After choosing their secret and surface categories, the players fleshed out their characters in the normal fashion, filling in the details behind the big stereotypes. A small town doctor who mistakenly killed a U.S. Marshal and went on the lam (secret Outlaw) and who now drifts from town to town, laying low and trying to lose his sins in the bottom of a bottle (surface Cowboy). An orphaned tom boy raised in a gang of desperadoes (secret Outlaw) who grows up and tries to leave her bandit life behind by changing her name and joining the Texas Rangers (surface Lawman).
The key to the first choice is that it does not reflect the character's attitude, it reflects a real fact: how the law sees that person. A corrupt sheriff is still a Lawman until he gets caught and becomes an Outlaw. A prospector who gets framed for murder is still an Outlaw even though he didn't do it.
For an ad hoc system, the Lawman/Outlaw/Cowboy scheme worked remarkably well. It gave the players a starting structure to make basic decisions, and also set up the expectations that the other characters could certainly not be what they seemed, while recognizing that well, maybe they were.
The same good/bad/innocent structure could be applied to other genres as a starting point for intrigue or just keeping secrets. In an espionage game, characters could be Spies (working for the Agency), Double-Agents (working for the other side) or Bystanders (normal people caught up in the spy game). Is the so-called innocent man really an unlucky bystander, or is he working for the other side?
Want a religious persecution game? Zealot/Heretic/Flock or the witchhunt variant Hunter/Witch/Flock.
Body snatchers? Hunter/Pod Person/Bystander.
If you want distrust and suspicion among the players, it really writes itself. Even if they are all completely honest, they are primed to expect deceit because they know that's two out of three choices. We were shooting for Paranoia, right?
Next: Part 3 — Tangled Threads